Gravett, Amron. “52 Rivers, 52 Weeks, One Woman,” Colorado Country Life, July 2015, cover + p16-19.
Where one used to hear only tall tales from anglers bragging about that Really Big Fish they caught last year, today these stories drip rich with the landscape, allude to quiet moments in nature, and even sometimes surprising turns of luck. This is one of those stories. This is the modern fish story.
The River Wild
On a list of the iconic rivers of the mountain West, one will find the Colorado, the Yellowstone, the Snake, the Salmon, the Bighorn, the Rio Grande, and the Arkansas. Reading these names in a travelogue of river adventures assures the reader of the wild ride and breathtaking scenic narratives to come. Writing about the West inevitably includes these place-names with all of their mythic, wild reverence; and readers of a first-time author, librarian, and rising Colorado angler Shelley Walchak’s 52 Rivers are not disappointed.
In 2011, Walchak was looking at her sixth decade of life and wanting a deep breath of quiet. “I realized it was time to pursue a new direction in my life that would challenge and reward me in new ways and allow me to spend time alone with my thoughts and dreams — preferably in the great outdoors, rather than just gazing at its drama and beauty through office and car windows.” Having taken a few fishing skills’ clinics, she set out to really learn the art and craft of fly-fishing — not by taking off for an afternoon here and a weekend there, but through full immersion.
Skilled in research and planning, she methodically matched 52 weeks of the year to 52 rivers in the seven Rocky Mountains states, even accounting for seasonal variations. As part of her preparation, she attended The Fly Fishing Show in Denver and befriended the International Federation of Fly-Fishers making the acquaintance of soon-to-be lifelong fishing buddies Pat and Carol Oglesby. In mid-December of 2012, she quit her job as a senior consultant at the Colorado State Library, bought a 13-foot Scamp trailer and some photography equipment and took off to follow her bliss — alone.
Not surprisingly, reading Walchak’s tales of a year-long journey around these rivers of the mountain West is not boring. There is no prose of casting…waiting…watching, recasting…more waiting…more watching. Instead, we read of hauling a camper over the winding roads of the Rockies in slick winter conditions, of being swept down a fast current with waders full of winter-crisp river water, of dunking expensive camera gear while trying to catch the perfect wildlife photo. Her stories take us down loose, steep river edges heading to a river so perfect, so heavy with fish, our writer doesn’t want to spoil the plenty by placing it on the map. So while the river must be written about, it is better left unnamed.
Artistry on the Fly
Anglers are simultaneously birdwatchers, botanists, ecologists, meteorologists, and artists. But it is the artistry of tying flies that attracts reverence among other anglers. Made to replicate the area’s bug and fly hatchlings, they often produce the prettiest (and smallest) works of art with fuzzy tails, flaming stripes, and gold-beaded attractors.
Tying flies can be a very expressive and individual skill. The variety of colors, knots, materials, and patterns rivals only the variety found in the sought-after fish. Naming them requires all the flourish of a poet: jawbreaker, shit fly, water walker, parachute hare’s ear, wooly bugger, club sandwich hopper. And fish-speak is just as lyrical: threading the needle, finding the honey hole, rod action, or even simply getting a grip.
But it’s not just the flies that showcase the art of fly-fishing. The fish themselves also attract quite a bit of admiration. Walchak adores a fine specimen: “From mid-belly to its tail fin, the brownie had a red blush on its sleek body as if embarrassed by its beauty. It was a perfect creation.”
The quiet sport of fly-fishing is not without its controversies, but for the most part, anglers are a soft-spoken, solitary bunch. Many enjoy the knee-deep isolation of being on the river or floating in a canoe unaccompanied (choosing sides in the wade vs. row controversy), but the sport itself is decidedly lacking in politics and confrontation. Still, some do take a personal stance on ethical practices such as redds fishing (fishing near a spawning nest) and catch-and-release. As a group, however, they are much louder in championing river conservancy, habitat restoration, and public water access.
We learn a bit about some of these controversial issues in 52 Rivers because, as a former teacher, Walchak has an easy way of informing without taking sides. According to Walchak, the crux of every argument is clear: “Can we at least agree that we have beautiful rivers?” Two of her most passionate causes are trout and salmon conservation, and water education.
In April, she was the keynote speaker at Colorado’s Trout Unlimited Annual Conference in Redstone. Trout Unlimited is a non-profit, national conservation and political organization who has worked to conserve, protect, and restore cold water fisheries and watersheds for over 50 years. Walchak also supports the Colorado Foundation for Water Education that works to “promote a better understanding of Colorado’s water resources and issues by providing balanced and accurate information and education.” Both organizations allow her to learn about new perspectives on these issues while surrounding her with other anglers and educators who are as passionate as she is about being on the river.
Although women do fish, the ratio of women to men is still only 1 to 4. One of the many goals that she outlined for her trip was to find a new female fishing partner every month. It was this intention that she came to find Casting for Recovery. Casting for Recovery is a non-profit organization that gets more women into the sport through therapeutic fly-fishing retreats for women with breast cancer.
A Piscatorial Philosophy
There is a core philosophy woven throughout the book: the ability to let go and be open to what may come to pass. In the book, we encounter many moments of Walchak’s unexpected pleasure including that of being flagged down by a new friend along the highway who notices that unmistakable Scamp with the sign “52 Rivers” (thanks to her sister’s sign-making skills) and that rare moment of perfect conditions for a Baetis hatch (a small mayfly) on the Colorado River in October. Walchak’s prose shows an easy ability to live without interference and embrace the unexpected.
“This is what makes fly-fishing so attractive to me,” she says. “It’s such a metaphor for life: constant change, highs and lows, successes and failures. If you can fly-fish, you can handle life.” Indeed, the consequence of serendipity can sometimes be extraordinary.
Readers also learn about what so many have already tried to articulate: the spirituality of fly-fishing. Writers as diverse as Tom Brokaw, Norman Maclean, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have all have tried to clarify this sense of religiousness that is only found when immersed in nature. They seek to make sense of the unexplainable.
A travelogue of any sort would be lacking if not for the addition of this very personal thought process that one goes through while being alone in the wilderness. Walchak’s philosophy began developing through organized religion and then later blossomed in college with studies in philosophy and theology. Today, these thoughts are explored during quiet moments of solitude, riverside.
The Modern Memoir
Recent popular books like Wild by Cheryl Strayed have ignited an interest in the personal adventure memoir. Unfortunately, most of us cannot (or don’t want to) check out of modern life entirely, quitting our day jobs and hitting the road. And so the modern adventure writers are left to figure out how to make their own personal journey relevant to the sedentary reader who wants a taste of the adventure without the sacrifice involved.
Armchair travel can be a wonderful escape and if you let her, Walchak will take you along: “Imagine this: ultra-clear water, not another angler in sight, easy wading, sublime scenery, 80-degree weather and deeply-hued brown trout mostly between 16 and 22 inches.”
She finds a way to make her quiet, courageous thoughts feel like our own. It is this friendliness of prose where her stories merge to become less like reading a technical manual on fishing and more like a friendly conversation over dinner. She finds a way to make her personal story intersect with the bigger picture: protecting the wild, a need for solitude, and that insatiable drive for adventure. In her own humble way, she cuts a path for a modern life at Walden Pond.
As memoirist Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “Great memoirs require great courage.” Through 52 Rivers, Walchak and her Scamp take the reader to remote wilderness to revel in the quietude of what a woman in the western landscape gets a chance to see when the sun rises at daybreak and the heron lifts off from the riverbank to catch his breakfast. We are left with inspiration that we might have the courage somewhere inside of ourselves to follow our own bliss.
Although fly-fishing is now integral to Walchak’s life, these days she is the library director of the Pine River Library in Bayfield, Colorado. Rest assured, however, the rivers are still calling her back. Her fish story is not yet complete.
Other Western Ecobiographies
University of Colorado – Boulder instructor Kayann Short developed the term ecobiography for ecology-based memoirs that explore a personal sense of place where first-person narratives and nature writing intersect. Just as Shelley Walchak does in 52 Rivers, other writers have explored the ways in which nature and the self relate. You don’t need to live in the wilderness, or even long for it, to appreciate these award-winning ecobiographies by Western women:
- Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado by Andrea M. Jones. (University of Iowa Press, 2013). Shortlisted for the 2013 Reading the West Award.
- A Bushels Worth: A Ecobiography by Kayann Short. (Torrey House Press, 2014). Silver Medal Winner for the Nautilus “Better Books for a Better World” Award in Green Living and Sustainability and a finalist for the Sarton Memoir Award.
- Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature by Priscilla Stuckey (Counterpoint Press, 2012). Winner of the 2013 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction.
- Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey by Susan J. Tweit. (University of Texas Press, 2009). Tweit is the Winner of the 2014 Colorado Authors League Award.
- Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons by Mary Beth Baptiste. (Two Dot, 2014). Finalist for the 2014 IndieFab Book of the Year in Autobiography & Memoir.
Amron Gravett is an indexer and writer for Wild Clover Book Services. Although she is not an angler, her son has been fishing since grandpa got him hooked at age three. This is her fourth cover article for Colorado Country Life.